Facial goniometer, mid-19th century. Collin, Paris [OB2015.009]
Facial Goniometer, mid-19th century. Collin, Paris [OB2015.009]
We recently added an interesting item to our Objects Collection, an instrument called a facial goniometer. This came to the Archives from our colleagues at the Beneski Museum of Natural History. The object offers a bit of insight into the local popularity of anthropometery in the 19th century – that is, the practice of compiling a wide variety of measurements of the human body, most often in the support of various scientific or pseudoscientific theories of anthropology.

A goniometer is any device that measures angles. A facial goniometer is specifically concerned with calculating the angle of the face from the jaw to the forehead. This instrument was introduced in the mid-19th century by anthropometrists. This particular goniometer bears the maker’s mark “Collin, Paris.” Adolphe Collin was a well-known surgical instrument maker in Paris from the 1860s through the 1930s.

Facial Goniometer. Illustration from Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839), p. 252.
Facial Goniometer. Illustration from Samuel George Morton, Crania Americana (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839), 252.

George Morton, in his Crania Americana (1839), provides a detailed description of how a facial goniometer is meant to be applied to measure the facial angle of the human skull. First, three basal pieces (A) are affixed snugly around the sides and front of the specimen, while a thin vertical piece in the middle (K and L) sort of straddles the nasal bone. Then the vertical limb D is allowed to fall back to touch limb K, and a degree measurement is made on the angular scale.

Morton, Crania Americana, 250.
Illustration from Morton, Crania Americana, p. 250.
The illustration above from Morton’s Crania Americana shows differences in the facial angles of two cranial specimens. The first specimen (the skull of a “Cowalitsk,” i.e. Cowlitz, a Native American tribe of the Pacific Northwest), has an angle measuring 66 degrees; in the specimen below it, a Peruvian Indian, the line measures 76 degrees.
The purpose of our goniometer at Amherst College is uncertain. The most likely hypothesis is that is was acquired and used by Dr. Edward Hitchcock (AC 1849), college physician and professor of physical education and hygiene. “Old Doc” Hitchcock was keenly interested in anthropometry; we know that he led a rigorous program of physical measurements of several generations of Amherst College men, and published extensively on the subject. It is possible that Hitchcock’s personal papers provide an answer to this question.

One thought on “A Facial Goniometer

Leave a Reply